Progress is dead… and maybe that is good

I’ve said before that I get a lot of questions as an inner-city pastor.

Recently I was at a meeting and the usual round of introductions happened. One person, after learning that I was in my third year in ministry in the inner-city asked “well, are you seeing any progress?”

Any progress…

I’ll confess that I fumbled through an answer because I didn’t even really know how to answer that question. What is progress anyway?

Back to that question in a moment

2016 has been a strange year. A year of tragedy for many, victory for some, and defeat for others. In trying to come up with a summary for the year the best I can say is that 2016 has been a year of soul searching. Whether you are Liberal or conservative, Christian or non-Christian, black lives matter, police, and whoever else the truth is that we have all been forced to look at our cherished beliefs quite a lot this year.

Through that soul searching another strange question i get is “how do you have hope at this time?” My usual answer, that hope is an imperative, I’ve found to be unhelpful for many. So I return to a tried and true method: ask questions until I can come up with an answer. “Well, where do you find hope?”

What is interesting is the answers I get. For many the answers are clustered around the idea of progress. “I used to have hope because I thought things were getting better.” “we were making progress and now it seems to have stopped.” “things are worse than ever!” More often than not the people who tell me this are people of sincere faith looking for a reason to hope again.

One of those things that 2016 has also revealed is that our faith lately has not so much been in the living God, but the idea of progress. We had hope because we saw progress. The economy getting better, rights being won on a variety of fronts, improved standards of living, etc… Progress was good to us and our source of hope.

2016 has shattered that idea of progress though. The economy hasn’t gotten better for many people. Life expectancy went down this year. Drugs and addiction are claiming lives at an alarming rate. Many are afraid that new found rights will disappear under a new and sustained assault. Not to mention the fact that our politics, all the way from a local level to a national level, show nothing resembling progress.

Back to our question at the beginning (see, I told you we would return): do I see any progress?

Progress is a strange thing in my world. Have I seen dramatic decreases in drug use, crime, or unemployment in the eight blocks around my church? Nope. By the usual standards of progress (numbers, wealth, health) progress seems far off. More than anything progress is best shown the tearing down of another abandoned house. Not something many people (other than me) celebrate.

Yet what I should have said to my interlocutor was that regardless of progress I have hope.

Hope is a strange thing in scripture. It comes from God and quite frankly the God we worship is not much concerned with progress. No gradual upswing for this God. No real promise that hard work and effort will result in tangible victories. The best we get is a promise that “by your endurance you will win your souls” (Luke 21:19).

Instead, what we also get from God are sudden outbursts of hope. Christmas is one of those times. There was no progress to be had in the Christmas story. Caesar Augustus and his heirs would remain on the thrown (and trust me, it wouldn’t be pretty). Quirinius was a member of the swamp if ever there was one and he would remain governor. Judea will still be occupied, Rome would still be as brutal as ever to those who opposed her. Progress was in short supply. Yet at those same moments the armies of heaven are singing for joy and shepherds are telling all what they have seen: that God has entered the world.

That is something that is new, sudden, unforeseen. It’s not progress, but it is hope. Hope that when progress seems gone God tends to start working. Hope that God even enters the world of death. Hope that new life suddenly springs out of death.

A person told me recently that they couldn’t be in church as regularly as they had been. Surprisingly this news gave me more hope than anything that I had heard in weeks. Their reason was that they had found a new job and it was going to interfere with church sometimes. By the definition of progress this encounter was a failure. I was loosing attendance and the job didn’t even mean that help wasn’t needed from the church anymore.

Yet…it gave me hope because it meant this family could finally find their own place to live.

2016 has been a learning moment for us all. Perhaps we are learning just how much of a cold, dead idol progress really is. Like so many idols progress shows little loyalty, no faithfulness, and never bestows its blessings in the way we really need. Like the abandoned houses in my neighborhood the best that can be said is that our idol of progress needs to be torn down.

After that maybe we can get back to hope.



  1. Nice reflection, David. When I worked at the mission, church folks and donors would ask me what sort of “success rate” we had. I fumbled with that question, too, for a while until I learned the correct answer. Then I told them that we were successful every time a hungry person was fed, a cold person was given a coat, a homeless person had a safe place to sleep–that is, every time we did was Jesus told us to do. That wasn’t the answer they expected but it challenged them (at least the church folks) to rethink their definition of “success.”

    It sounds like you are doing good ministry. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

  2. Well Pastor Dave….I must say that you have done it again. Lifted my spirits and convinced me of yet another truth. That progress just may be a cold dead idol. And we are not to worship idols. So much for my hope in progress. And that teaches me to rely on our Creator and Savior for our much needed and accepted HOPE!

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